Upon the story’s release, there were two questions on everyone’s minds. First, how did Penn succeed where seasoned journalists before him had failed for decades?
Second, was it legitimate to give the article pre-approval rights to the drug lord, or anyone, for that matter?
Penn more or less answers the first question in his 10,000-word saga, which details how Mexican actress Kate del Castillo helped him arrange the interview. According to Penn, Castillo began a correspondence with Guzmán after she tweeted a message asking him to consider “trafficking with love.”
As it so happens, Guzmán is a fan of del Castillo, and he asked one of his lawyers to send her flowers. From there, the unlikely pen pals maintained regular contact even while Guzmán was behind bars, and he told del Castillo that she was the only one with whom he would entrust his life story.
Then came Penn, who knew del Castillo through a mutual friend and proposed a magazine story shortly after Guzmán ‘s escape from prison in July.
The way it all came together was a feat worthy of Rolling Stone’s history. A combination of celebrity cachet and immersive reporting brought Penn face-to-face with the kingpin himself.
The actor was exacting in his strategy.
“I could not sell [Guzmán ] on a bait-and-switch,” Penn writes, “and I knew that in the writing of any piece, my only genuine cards to play were to expose myself as one fascinated and willing to suspend judgment.”
This unconventional approach toward a man charged with organized crime, murder and drug trafficking in a number of U.S. jurisdictions apparently won the day. Guzmán agreed to a formal interview with Penn and even let slip a sentimental tidbit about his mother.
He sees her “all the time,” he tells Penn. “I hoped we would meet at my ranch and you could meet my mother. She knows me better than I do.”
These scenes have provoked envy and skepticism from other journalists. Much scrutiny has fallen on a disclosure at the top of the article that notes that “an understanding was brokered with the subject that this piece would be submitted for the subject’s approval before publication. The subject did not ask for any changes.”
For some, the editorial decision to give Guzmán final say on the article’s publication negates the interview. Less than a year after The Washington Post found that major details of Rolling Stone’s rape story were untrue and the magazine retracted the article, the magazine’s ethics are once again being called into question.
Andrew Seaman, chair of the Society of Professional Journalist’s ethics committee, wrote in blog post: “Allowing any source control over a story’s content is inexcusable. The practice of pre-approval discredits the entire story. … The writer, who in this case is an actor and activist, may write the story in a more favorable light and omit unflattering facts in an attempt to not be rejected.”
In an interview with the New York Times, Rolling Stone founder Jann Wenner defended the choice to give Guzmán pre-approval.
“We have let people in the past approve their quotes in interviews,” Wenner said. “In this case, it was a small thing to do in exchange for what we got.”
Guzmán speaks little English and ultimately had no problems with the final product, Wenner said. Jason Fine, a lawyer and managing editor for the magazine, told the Times that Rolling Stone could have decided not to publish the piece if Guzmán wanted changes.
Wenner also told the Times of other concerns as Rolling Stone worked on the story: “I was worried that I did not want to provide the details that would be responsible for his capture. We were very conscientious on our end and on Sean’s end, keeping it quiet, using a separate protected part of our server for emails.”
Wenner told the Times he got a call from Penn several months ago and began an ongoing conversation that eventually led to publication of the article.
In fact, the Associated Press quoted Mexican authorities saying that Penn’s contacts with Guzmán helped them track down the fugitive in a rural part of Durango state.
Penn’s reliability as a narrator also has been questioned, as he at times appears to display a disturbing admiration for Guzmán, which some have interpreted as overlooking the thousands of lives that his Sinoloa cartel has probably claimed.
“As you dive deeper into the meandering mess, it becomes clear that Penn holds some sort of Hollywood-inspired reverence for El Chapo,” Gawker’s Melissa Cronin observed.
This suspicion isn’t helped by Penn’s distinctive prose, the subject of much mockery on social media.
Among the lines that have been singled out: “We sit within quietude of fortified walls that are old New York hotel construction, when walls were walls.”
But could all this be chalked up to professional jealousy?
Vox Executive Editor Matthew Yglesias tweeted: “Sean Penn infiltrated a dangerous Mexican drug cartel leading to the apprehension of a wanted killer and everyone’s criticizing his prose?”
Steve Coll, dean of Columbia University’s School of Journalism, likewise told the Times that while he has concerns about the pre-approval pact, “scoring an exclusive interview with a wanted criminal is legitimate journalism no matter who the reporter is.”
It could be journalism just legitimate enough to save the Rolling Stone’s struggling reputation. The magazine is currently facing a $25 million lawsuit filed by U-Va.’s Phi Kappa Psi chapter, the fraternity at the center of its disgraced rape article.
The astonishment that has greeted Penn’s “El Chapo Speaks,” then, is perhaps the best reception that the magazine has garnered in several months.
More from Morning Mix